“Jordan is one of the driest places on earth. About 75 per cent of our land is desert,” notes our guide Ali.
Our minibus is making its way from the Mars-like landscape of Wadi Rum to a luxury hotel next to the Dead Sea, four hours north. Halfway into the journey, we have barely passed a single soul.
We had boarded easyJet’s inaugural flight from London Gatwick to Aqaba for a tour of the country’s highlights, and a blast of winter sun. From the city’s port, a large speedboat took us out across the Gulf of Aqaba, with views over the Egyptian coast.
Many visitors come to Aqaba to dive and snorkel in its colourful reefs. It is also a haven for birdlife, as is Azraq, where you can visit Shaumari Wildlife Reserve to catch a glimpse of the rare Arabian oryx.
Jordan’s capital, Amman, also draws big crowds, in part for its hilltop Roman ruins, souks and traditional Islamic architecture. The desert castles to the city’s south and east – including Qasr al-Mushatta, Qasr al-Hallabat and Qasr al-Kharana – feature on many itineraries.
“But you can come to Jordan for the food alone,” Ali adds with a smile.
Typical dishes include Mediterranean-style mezze served with flat bread, and lamb with rice. But owing to Jordan sharing its borders with several countries, there is plenty of culinary variety. The sweet and strong coffee, served around the country, is a great way to start the day with a kick.
Here are three more essential Jordanian experiences you can’t miss.
1. Seeing the sunset and stars at Wadi Rum
We arrive at Wadi Rum’s Sun City Camp as the light is fading. Sitting in the open back of a 4×4, we chase the vehicle in front of us, soaking up an alien landscape of sandstone and granite, jutting from the peach-orange sand. From a distance, the patterns on the rocks bring to mind intricate cave temple complexes; up close they have a curious ‘dripping wax’ effect.
“Wadi Rum is one of the best spots in the world to get away from it all,” says our tour guide, Lana. “You can do it a lot of different ways. You can coordinate with one of the guys and they can set up a private camp for you. You can camp out here yourself, like many of the locals. Camels, horses and even a hot air balloon ride are other options. The camps, like ours, range from the luxurious to the basic.”
Our driver shifts up a gear, as we scale one of the sand-covered rocks. Sitting on the bank, we watch the sun slip away, casting a red glow across the sky in the low light that follows. The terrain of reddened sand is now at its most woozy and looks braced for some sort of futuristic battle. (Fittingly, scenes from Star Wars: Episode IX were filmed here.)
2. Experiencing Petra at dawn
Petra has always been popular with photographers – not only for its niches, tombs and facades, but for the way the light changes the colour of the rocks. With that in mind, we had arrived at 6am (when the gates open) to catch the sunrise.
We enter the Rose City via the main entrance, known as the Siq, and make our way through a natural canyon, flanked by towering swathes of sandstone. “One day is not enough,” says Ali. “You need to get the three-day pass at least. But we only have three hours, so I want to show you the maximum.”
As we walk in the direction of the famous treasury, through a corridor at times little more than three-metres wide, birds tweet and flutter into crevices. A humming, as though imagined, resonates from the rocks.
We pass an elderly man with wrinkled skin, playing a single-stringed instrument with a bow, that sounds like a wavering horn.
“There are lots of other routes you can take to enjoy Petra,” says Ali. “There’s the Wadi Muthlim entry route. You can also climb the hundreds of steps to get a good view of the monastery. Or you can view the city centre from Petra Church.”
The treasury emerges from the rock corridor in front of us, salmon-red and smooth, with the rising sun showering new light over its glorious facade. Reportedly a tomb for Nabataean King Aretas IV, it dates back to the 1st century. Even early rising peddlers cannot spoil the view, as we take in the sculpted sandstone pillar and statues.
Five minutes later, the colossal walls on either side give way to an open landscape resembling the Grand Canyon. A short uphill walk affords us views of rocks carved by the Nabataean nomads who once ruled the city, and the remains of Roman settlements from the following era.
3. Floating in the Dead Sea
Our minibus is approaching the Dead Sea, the lowest point on Earth at around 408m below sea level. Perhaps implausibly, given the region’s biblical significance, the sun’s rays are fragmenting through the clouds, throwing shafts of light upon the murky brown water as we make our way down the hill towards the hotel.
“Each year, the Dead Sea loses a lot of water,” Ali explains. “There are two reasons: One is evaporation – the area is very hot during the summer; the other reason is that there is not enough water flowing from the Jordan River to the Dead Sea.”
We are staying at the five-star Kempinski Hotel, with an infinity pool overlooking the sea, backed by quarry-like hills. I approach the private beach to find one of my fellow travellers covered head to toe in mud, smearing himself with the stuff from a vat beside the water. As I walk over, the lifeguard laughs at my bemusement. “It comes from over there,” he says, pointing to the crumbling banks.
It is now time for Ali to give us a proper briefing. “Wet your body in the sea and then cover yourself with mud. Wait until it gets dry, then bathe properly. Swimming is not allowed – you need to be careful not to get the water in your eyes and mouth.”
As I lie in the water, my legs floating in front of me and completely caked, I can see the shores of Israel in the distance. I can’t say the sensation of floating is particularly profound or spiritual for me, though I enjoy the warm pockets of water amid the cold – and later that evening, I find I’m in a state of blissful calm that lasts the entire night.
We sit back to enjoy our final evening in the hotel, with entertainment in the form of a belly dance display, as traditional Arabic music plays over the top of a skittering electronic beat. I reflect upon the life experiences I’ve crammed into three days; Jordan has been a perfect introduction to the Middle East.
Have you ever travelled to the Middle East? Would you like to visit Jordan?
– With PA
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